Saturday 7 January 2017


(Yes, finishing tomorrow. Rush, my pretties, rush...)

”I could act as a Trojan horse that would spew forth hallucinating figures with the power to surprise, to disturb the dreams of the exploiters.”
- Wilfredo Lam

Though almost always known through the shorthand term 'the Cuban Surrealist', Wifredo Lam's talent was incubated in Europe. He was painting before leaving Cuba, but the work was conventional. It was initially Madrid which introduced him to both artistic and political radicalism, after he won a scholarship to study in Spain in 1931.

He became not merely pro-Republican but Marxist, closely associating political change with artistic innovation, not just creating agitational art but working in a munitions factory (till the chemicals took a toll on his health). While, in a manner not entirely dissimilar to the early Malevich, his paintings cycled through copies of Modernist styles. For example 'Composition I' (1930, below) is an accomplished but somewhat generic exercise in tick-list Surrealism – the moonlight dreamscape, the sexually charged Hollywood blonde, the mannequin figures, the long shadows, the highly symbolic body of water.

The most successful element is the tugging perspective, the tilted-back head of the main figure leading to the steps and the jetty, pulling the viewer into the composition as if it's aim is to leave you dangling at the end of that jetty. There's also a neat touch where her hair becomes linked to the curtain draping the right half of the picture.

And if that doesn't seem generic enough, the later 'Composition II' (1933) features a giant Terry Gilliam foot. I'd always thought that was an image people retrospectively assigned to Surrealism, in the same way they imagine it was obsessed with fish. While other works are as influenced by Matisse, such as 'Self-Portrait II'</> (1938). Had he continued in this vein, he would have been but a footnote in Modernism's history.

The Awakening African (Putting The Black Back)

But from hereon emerges a pattern where historical upset bouncing him around the map like a pinball, but always galvanising his art. Fleeing fascist advance in May 1938, he escaped to Paris clutching a letter of introduction to Picasso. Something which might seem like one of those cursed magic objects of folk tales, for the norm is for artists to either become trapped within Picasso's orbit or escape it. Yet for Lam he seems to have been an enabling figure, introducing him around and even exhibiting with him.

It even seems to be Picasso who suggested that Lam explore his African heritage in his art. One variant of the story claims that he saw an African mask for the first time in Picasso's studio, and did not initially know where it was from. In the vidclip below, his son Eskil claims Picasso used the phrase “you should be proud of this”. The show also mentions his becoming a visitor at the Musee de l'Homme. (Though Cuba had been a Spanish colony, with it's different empire France would have had a bigger hoard of African art.)

Notably, in his new African-influenced style he created a self portrait, 'Self-Portrait II' (1938); the show underlines the point by hanging it next to the Matisse-dervied 'Self-Portrait II'. But a stronger and more significant work might be the almost audaciously reductive 'Young Woman on a Light Green Background' (1938, below).

With the figure herself a pale sandy yellow, barely distinguishable from that background, it's the thick black lines of the features which are pushed forward. The figure's deliberately codified, broken down. A horizontal line serves for an eye, three lines for a mouth, and two parallel diagonals for shoulder blades. It's only their arrangement that gives them their significance. It's as if Lam was no longer chasing the latest thing in art, but instead tugging at it's roots.

Despite Picasso's comment it is effectively impossible to reconstruct how much Lam was responding to African art as a Modernist, taking inspiration from primitive styles, and how much as a black man taking up his heritage. We should remember he first saw African mark quite literally through Modernism's eyes. But there do seem to be elements of both in the art.

'Figure' (1939, above) gives us an almost identical silhouette to 'Young Woman'. But everything is transposed, the background a roughly painted off-white while the figure itself becomes a window onto coloured symbols and motifs. Once more, the figure looks female. And Lam had been influenced by Surrealism, where female figures are often totems for the id. Lam's Africa is not accoutrements, not hangings on the wall, it's placed on the inside.

But stronger still is 'The Awakening' (1938, below). Despite the title only one of the two figures is waking. And, as in the title, she seems caught in that act - eyes still closed slits, hands at her face as if her features were a new thing. The grid patterns of the roof and floor suggest confinement, particularly when compared to the non-backgrounds of the previous works, and throws the figures' nakedness into relief. While not necessarily specifically a painting about slavery, the work does suggest an emerging black consciousness.

African influences were of course widespread in Modernism. Even by this point, some thought the influence played out and had started looking to more remote points on the map for inspiration. Romantic as it sounds, there may be something about Lam's heritage which allowed him to wholeheartedly take up the influence and come up with something more original from it.

Nevertheless, history would push Lam two more times before his mature style would emerge...

Horns and Hybrids

Again fleeing the advance of fascism, Lam was caught in Marseilles in June 1940 – including Andrew Breton and many of the prominent Surrealists. The show presents this period as a kind of incubation chamber. Like unattended house guests, with little else to do they occupied their own time - drawing together, often collectively. The situation was doubtless fraught. Lam wrote at the time of “another day of anguish and disgust”. Yet his Marseilles Notebooks, as they came to be called, came to be significant.

The show wisely includes some of these (sample page above), and even gives over a small room to his general drawings. They're full of linear and often flat drawings of women and animal hybrids, much of which sticks in his art. But describing them as “a new pictorial zodiac of creatures” suggests they were some kind of preparatory aid. Whereas his drawings cannot really be separated from his main body of work, for reasons we'll come onto.

These hybrid figures emerge in an important (if transitional) work, 'Portrait of HH' (1943, above). The thick, geometric black lines have now been softened and curved, the bold colours gradated. Despite being adorned with horns the face is sympathetic, with the torso contoured into the shape of the chair. The subject,Helena Holzer, was in a relationship with Lam at the time. Yet the mixture of strength and softness gives off a highly maternal feel.

While the Surrealists were mostly able to escape to America, Lam was briefly interned before – in August 1941 – returning to Cuba. His work came to be influenced by the Yoruba religion, which can be regarded as related to Voodoo. The main product of this was 'The Jungle' (1943), generally regarded as Lam's finest work. Unfortunately, created on paper, it's now considered too delicate to travel, so is not part of this show.

However, this show does have 'The Sombre Malembo, Gods of the Crossroads' (1943, above), which is perhaps not just Lam's second-greatest work but a variant on the theme. The colour scheme, dominated by deep but mottled greens, is entirely new. Though outlined in black, and at points highlighted in purple, the figures seem to blend into one another (as with his hybrid drawings) and to be half-emerging from, half fading into the background. 

Though you initially see a forest setting, there's really a print-like pattern of leaf forms and mere suggestions of sectioned bamboo-like trunks. This effect is most likely because the figures themselves look so plant-like, with their tuber-like heads, flowing hair and rooted feet. Their features are as impassive and inscrutable as the African faces earlier.

Rather than a realised work, a window onto a scene, it looks like a portal, a doorway into some other kind of space. These aren't semi-camouflaged figures hiding out in the jungle, like fairies living at the bottom of the garden in children's stories. Nor are they symbolic lords over it, like Cuban Oberons. These are more animist works, both apparition and nature scene, where Lam is conveying the spirit of the jungle.

Andre Breton said of Lam's work of this period: “This aspect of the human issued from the idol, still half-entangled in the legendary treasure of humanity... the architecture of the head sinks onto the scaffolding of totemic animals which are believed to have been driven off, but which return.”

The show makes much of Lam employing the secret symbols of tribal religion, used to counter suppression. Yet it's important to note that he wasn't interested in the Yoruba equivalent of Bible illustration. Though figures and motifs recur, he's principally using Yoruba as a repository of images and themes. He commented “I have never created my pictures on terms of a symbolic tradition, but always on the basis of a poetic execution”.

Take the horns, now moved from the portrait of HH to these bulbous heads. Significantly Elegua, the messenger of the Gods, had a horned head. But according to Western tradition so did the cuckold. And Lam was in a sense cuckolded by history, himself a hybrid creature. This was a time when 'mulattos' (a pejorative term for mixed race akin to 'half-caste') often suffered increased discrimination. It's inaccurate to see Lam as a primitive artist, channelling his Third World roots onto the canvas, someone to be stuck in a box marked 'ethnic'.

It doesn't seem conceivable he could have created these works if he'd simply stayed in Cuba. Not only did his art develop through encountering Modernism in Europe, he needed to return to Cuba to see, as the show puts it, “the country with new eyes”. (While his estate's website refers to his “exile to the native land”.)

Moreover, Cuba was itself a hybrid culture. Lam's antecedents had been but one group of Africans to move, or be moved, there. And Yoruba was itself heterodox, like Voodoo borrowing from Catholicism. Lam himself said: “When I came back to Cuba, I was taken aback by its nature, by the traditions of the Blacks, and by the transculturation of its African and Catholic religions”.

And this was seem in microcosm within Lam's family. His life did not become polyglot the day he moved to Spain. His godmother had been a Santeira princess, his father Chinese. His son says, again in the vidclip below, he considered himself a citizen of the world. And it's in not concealing but bringing all these traditions together, in seeking to unite past traditions with the present, that Lam was a Modernist. Here he paints the Gods of the Crrossroads. And like them he was not just on but of those crossroads.

”But Which Returns” (The Shadow Scenes)

Like most, knowing Lam's career only through the highlights, I was surprised to discover how brief this period was. 'The Eternal Present' (1944, above) comes only a year later, but is already heading for pastures new. There are compositional similarities, an arrangement of hybrid figures around a darkened centre, horns raised at the apex of the picture. But those verdant colours soon become quite sombre, with this work in monochrome brown. In fact the colour looks strangely absent, as if faded away. And the background, while it still has some sense of a dark recess to it, also incorporates a wrapping curtain. It's less a hazy apparition, more of a tableau.

But mostly, what's unmissable is the Surrealist saturation of art with sexualised violence. Two naked projecting bums bookend the work, while vulvas and penises project everywhere. In the upper centre a head of corn protrudes from a vulva-like ear, while another vulva adorns a tail at lower right. Of two prominent knives, the one at lower right seems to sprout a bird head for a handle. The horned head on the platter and the two-headed spear are motifs which will recur throughout this work.

This develops into works featuring, as the show puts it, “bright foreground bodies shrouded by dark forms in the shallow space.” Indeed it becomes challenging to frame the figures as they bend off in myriad directions, often snaking right across the canvas, unconstrained by the normally alloyed number of limbs. The influence of those earlier Surrealist automatist drawings is here, you can't imagine these compositions being composed so much as being created impulsively. And it seems clear enough why the figures should be unclear, as they soon start to lose their differentiation from one another.

'The Jungle' and 'The Sombre Malembo' could be said to be sinister works. Their spirits don't look the insipid New Agey sort, there to fill the heads of Western visitors with feelgood wisdom. But they're strangely inviting, connecting one world with another, metaphorically as well as literally colourful. While what follows is unmistakably savage. As art critic Marco Valsecchi commented “Lam alerts us to the existence of a disquieting state of being”.

The show presents three large paintings, first show together in a New York exhibition of 1948, all characterised by a kind of anti-symmetrical parallelism. Let's focus on the first two, which feature two figures trapped in a kind of symbiotic adversity. In both cases they look respectively male and female, telegraphed by the first being titled 'The Wedding' (1947, below).

The side figures 'rhyme' one another, the right one with a long tapered leg suggesting femininity. While it has a tail and finishes in a hoof, the male figure is shadowed by some animal creature. (I suspect these shadow forms mean something between spirit, second self and true nature.) A central figure is in an inverse crucifixion form. A horn-like ribcage, horns above and wheel below grant the figure something close to symmetry. Yet he holds out different objects, a sword and a candelabra, to the others.

The show suggests this figure is Maldoror from Lautremont's epic poem, whose opposition to religious morality made him a significant figure for the Surrealists. One of literature's most irreligious figures is given the role of the marrying priest. These elements may be opposed but their existence is predicated on that opposition, they could never be extricated from one another. The work's character is ritualised, perhaps even ceremonial, yet simultaneously savage, suggesting some primal civil war which locks us into it's patterns of violence. (And if another picture in the trilogy is called 'Nativity', you can probably draw your own conclusions...)

And this paralleling is echoed in the next picture, 'Belial, Emperor of the Flies' (1948, above). Though there's a bizarre echo in the right-hand leg, generally the genders of the figures look reversed, the left figure composed of curves and the right angles, with a rather testes-like Adam's apple . Unusually for Lam in this era, the darkest point isn't the centre of the frame but taken by the right-hand figure. His malevolent grin seems to dominate. There's something like the upside-down central figure of 'The Wedding', though pushed to the right and perhaps incorporated with the dark male.

The image seems to seethe with barely sublimated conflict. She stands solidly on all (yes, really) four legs, a knife held (concealed?) behind her while he pushes to the centre of the frame. The pointed arrow at the top of the frame seems to counter his thrusting hand, while also echoed by the two feet set toe-to-toe against one another. At the same time as this barely checked violence there's birth imagery, with the egg to the right, while the head held aloft on the platter could be read as a foetus.

Belial is a demon from the Hebrew Bible, while Emperor of the Flies sounds close enough to the Lord of the Flies, aka the Devil. Yet the show suggests he's also Chango (the Youruba deity of Thunder), and Mars against her Venus. Venus and Mars were often depicted in Classical art as lovers, often with an implicit “make love not war” message where she was able to sooth his lust for battle, for example in Botticelli's' Mars and Venus' (c. 1483). Whereas with Lam it's very much Venus being dragged into Mars' world.

Cruel Geometries

The Fifties saw the wild, loose-limbed figures give way to more geometric forms, almost like animate symbols, while the colours become bolder. Sometimes these could be literally made into painted totem poles of motifs and symbols, such as 'Totem To the Moon' (1955) and 'Totem For the Moon' (1957). (They also saw him once more upset by events, having to flee the imposition of the Batista dictatorship in Cuba in 1952. From there he lived variously in Italy, Switzerland, and back in Spain, Paris and Cuba. However, the change in his art seems to come first and now, with the main elements of his style complete, his work becomes less informed by outside events.)

'The Threshold' (1950, above), for example is sharper in an almost literal sense, and with it crueller - dominated by a triple diamond formation. Symmetry is associated with power art, and here they seem to be descending like a portcullis on a limbless and already broken figure beneath. The only humanised features belong to the one mute witness, shadowed in the lower left. (The expression is of shock, but the horns would seem to implicate it.) We've gone from the primacy of violence to the primacy of sacrifice. Notably, as with the earlier trilogy, the more you look at the work the more the symmetry starts to break down. The forms inside the diamonds vary considerably, particularly in their lower half.

If not quite giving due attention to Lam's drawings, the show does present his prints. There's often a paradox to them. They can give the figures a fluidity, a sense of motion beyond the paintings, their stretches and contortions virtually wrenching the eye across the frame. Yet they can feel a bit too fixed, too visible, too in plain view. There's a sense in the paintings of the figures never quite being capturable, while the prints shine on them a spotlight which denudes them of their mystery. The best are in the 'Apostrap' Apocalypse' series (1964/6, example above), created with the Romanian poet Gherasim Luca. These are looser, more plasticated, splattered with tints and tones. Bird forms come to predominate.

'The Soulless Children' (1964, above), though a decade and a half later, recalls 'The Wedding' both in it's use of multiplied elongated forms and paralleling of a male and female figure. But this time there seems more of a scene, actually looking quite domesticated. The male figure seems to be examining a horned dome-head like some sort of specimen, while the female has countless morphing figures on her lap. The space between them, which seems to double as third figure and cabinet, is a tumult. Children are presented as some sort of infestation, with no likeness between them and their parents.

While 'At the End of the Night' (1969, above) brings back the diamond forms of 'The Threshold', but again in an entirely different way. They now light the work in clusters of soft colours, like the lights of a distant city. Two figures, composed of less geometrically perfect triangular forms float towards this, their limbs already linked to it by a series of intersections. It's about as Jungian as the earlier works were Freudian. It looks like an image of the soul reaching the afterlife, so much so it's surprising to discover Lam lived until 1982.

Coming in the New Year! Assuming Dickhead the First doesn't kill us all as soon as inaugurated, more of the same. More visual arts reviews and gig-going adventures, for at least the next two to three months. The mini-series on abstract and semi-abstract art might even pick up again at some point. Then maybe time to dip back into that science fiction business…

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